Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shining Stars of Davida: Deborah, the Wet Nurse of Rebecca

God commanded Jacob to leave Shechem, where Simon and Levi made Jacob “odious among the inhabitants of the land” (Gen. 34:30) by killing out the entire city in revenge for Dina’s rape. Right after he arrived in Beit El (aka Beth El and Bais Kel), the Torah mentions a seemingly random detail: “Deborah, the wet nurse of Rebecca, died, and she was buried below Beit El, below the plain; and [Jacob] named it Allon Bakhut.” This is the first and last time Deborah is mentioned; other than this one verse, we know nothing about her.

Many commentators fill in the blanks about this mysterious woman. The text explicitly states that Deborah was Rebecca’s wet nurse. Typically, a wet nurse is simply a woman hired to nurse a baby if the mother cannot, or chooses not to. However, Aiden Zemirah, author of the novel Rebekah: Lady of the Negev, interprets Deborah and Rebecca’s relationship entirely differently. Zemirah construes that Deborah was indeed Rebecca’s nurse, but the job description was more of an eternal friend. Because of Rebecca’s lack of sisters, she and Deborah became very close.

While we may know who she is, the question still remains as to why she was with Jacob’s household if she was Rebecca’s companion. When Rebecca heard that Rachel was pregnant, she wanted the favorite wife of her favorite son to have the best care possible, so she sent the nurse who she thought the highest of: Deborah.

Deborah, however, was far from young. Rebecca was in her 140s, and Deborah was older than her (by eight years, in Aiden Zemirah’s interpretation). The long journey to Beit El exhausted her, and she died soon after she joined Jacob’s household, before Rachel gave birth. Nurses and those educated in healing were venerated at that time, and no doubt Deborah’s loss would have been highly mourned by Jacob’s family. According to Rashi, Jacob buried her underneath a plain on the incline of a mountain, and called it Allon Bakhut, which literally means the tree of tears.

Most commentators agree that Deborah’s death also signifies Rebecca’s death. Aiden Zemirah explains that the end of Rebecca’s life was marked with isolation and grief. After Rebecca helped Jacob trick Isaac into giving the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob instead of Esau, the narrative never discusses Isaac again, only returning to mention his death. He became morose and taciturn, and Rebecca, as his wife and the only family member still living with him, had to bear the brunt of his upset. Esau was openly preparing to kill his brother. She was out of regular contact with Jacob, her favorite son. Finally, after she dealt with all these hardships, Rebecca died alone. Nahmanides explains that this ending was too unhappy to record so bluntly in the Torah, so instead of writing that Rebecca died, it says that Deborah, her wet nurse, died. That way, we are reminded of Rebecca without asking too many questions about her unhappy ending. Genesis Rabbah elucidates that it says that the plural bakhut in Allon Bakhut means that two people died: Deborah because of the length of the journey, and Rebecca upon hearing the news of Deborah, her closest companion’s, death.

Kabbalah says that the soul of Deborah, Rebecca’s wet nurse, was later reincarnated in the form of Deborah, the famous judge of Israel who led the Jews in a successful battle against Canaan. The later Deborah “was a prophetess, the wife of Lapidot; she judged Israel at that time. She would sit under the date palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Beit El on Mount Ephraim, and the Children of Israel would go up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:4-5). A mountain near Beit El…wasn’t the original Deborah buried there?

I dub Deborah, the Wet Nurse of Rebecca, the first inductee into Shining Stars of Davida - strong women and men who make feminists proud.


  1. Why is the assumption that she was the one who nursed Jacob and Esau. Then you need to explain how she got to Babylonia. The verse says she was Rebecca's wet nurse. Maybe she is the one who nursed Rebecca, that Jacob met her after fleeing to Laban's house, and now she hoped to be reunited with her grown wet nursed "daughter" but died on the journey.

  2. I don't assume that she nursed Jacob and Esau at all, she's called the wet nurse of Rebecca, not Rebecca's sons.

    Anything is possible about Deborah, since the text of the Torah doesn't give any information about her. I just gave a few already-formulated ideas about who she was.